'People power' and the Indonesian election

Specter of popular uprising looms on horizon as Subianto's supporters reject Widodo's claims of re-election success
'People power' and the Indonesian election

Indonesian protesters, right, mainly supporters of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, stage a demonstration against alleged voting fraud in the recent Indonesian election in Jakarta on May 10, 2019. Firebrand ex-general Prabowo Subianto has rejected a dozen so-called quick counts that say Indonesian president Joko Widodo was re-elected by a comfortable margin. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)



Indonesia's incumbent president, Joko Widodo, appears to have won re-election for a second five-year term in the April 17 vote. The official count at the nation's General Election Commission (KPU) continues to show Widodo and running mate Ma'ruf Amin with a solid lead.

On May 7, according to the KPU's tally of returns, the pair had 56.32 percent of the vote, with sole challenger Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno lagging behind with 43.68 percent. That leaves the challengers more than 13 million votes behind, an apparently impossible figure to make up with only 56 million votes left to count.

Yet Subianto and the hard-line Islamists supporting him refuse to accept that version of the truth, insisting that massive and systematic cheating has robbed them of the election. As the May 22 deadline for the KPU to announce the winner of the election moves closer, nerves are becoming visibly more fragile.

Wiranto, the former armed forces chief who is accused of human rights abuses during the rule of former strongman Suharto and now the coordinating minister for politics, security and legal affairs, triggered a hail of criticism when he announced a national legal team that he said would investigate "tensions" that emerged in the post-election period. Both the National Commission on Human Rights and the Press Council accused him of wanting to set the clock back on human rights.

A.M. Hendropriyono, another former general close to Widodo and a former head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), came under fire when he snapped that Indonesians of Arab descent should not act as provocateurs. Many Arab Indonesians feature in the ranks of religious teachers who are pressing for a change of government, but Hendropriyono's comment was seen as breaching the rule banning comments based on race, ethnicity, religion or group affiliation — or SARA in Indonesian shorthand.

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Subianto's supporters and the former general himself continue to maintain pressure on the government and on the electoral authorities, insisting that they have been cheated and that Subianto really won with around 60 percent of the vote. It's not clear how they calculated that figure, and many who supported Subianto in his latest bid for the presidency have distanced themselves from his claims.

That has done nothing to make Subianto think again. In comments to foreign journalists at his residence on May 6, he repeated the claim that the election was subject to "structured, systematic and massive fraud" and demanded a full recount of the vote. Running mate Sandiaga Uno, who in the past has appeared less than enthusiastic about backing the claims of cheating, was present at the gathering.

Subianto has been careful about not making statements that could be interpreted as encouraging sedition. Amien Rais, formerly a democracy champion and a leading figure in the National Mandate Party (PAN) that backed Subianto in the election, has been less cautious, calling for "people's power" to meet any declaration of victory by Widodo and Amin. Lawyer Eggi Sudjana has been named a treason suspect for saying the same thing.

The prospect of a popular uprising continues to haunt the nation. While most people are confident that the KPU is doing a good job under difficult circumstances — the April 17 vote was the largest single exercise in direct democracy anywhere in the world — there remains a nagging fear that radicals could try to stage what would amount to a coup. The authorities have moved some 6,000 paramilitary police into the capital from other regions in preparation for trouble on May 22, when the declaration of the vote is due.

In recent days, a document has surfaced that suggests how an effective coup could take place. It would start with the occupation of the KPU on May 20 and the mobilization of masses starting in Aceh province, which voted solidly for Subianto and Uno. The people's power movement would then spread south through strong pro-Subianto areas to the capital. The foreign media would be welcome to witness "the disturbance and chaos inside the country," the document states.

The people's power program would aim to see Widodo and Amin disqualified and Subianto and Uno declared president and vice president by the nation's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly. Subianto's supporters have denied any connection to the document but it's no wonder that nerves are becoming frayed, with the threat of a coup hanging over the government just days away.

Widodo seems unconcerned. He has not yet claimed victory, telling his supporters to wait for the official result. He is getting on with the process of government, telling regional leaders he intends to push hard for more economic reforms.

Outside of government, there are concerns that the aggressive insistence on the right to rule by a handful of hard-line Islamists is creating new threats to minorities. In an article in Christian foreign policy journal Providence, A.J. Nolte — assistant professor of politics at Regent University's Robertson School of Government — warned that "Indonesia may be undergoing a kind of electoral ideological sorting into three camps, whose differing views on the relationship between Islam and the state will have a huge impact on the country moving forward."

The first bloc, represented by the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama, supports religious tolerance, but a second emerging bloc, which overwhelmingly supported Subianto, represents "an ominous trend worth watching," he said. This bloc is made up of two parts, one composed of West Javanese who have been influenced by austere Wahhabi teachings, and the second "outer islanders" who have traditionally been more orthodox.

What is clear is that the format of the elections needs to change. Up until May 8, 550 election workers and security officials were reported to have died from exhaustion and related medical problems. Tasked with overseeing elections for the presidency and four separate levels of legislative assemblies, some collapsed and died on the job as they worked through the night and into the next day after the poll to complete their work. The government has gone as far as to admit that electronic voting might be necessary, to replace the laborious manual counting process used so far.

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